Saturday, May 1, 2021

Words Hurt as Much as Hands

 

“We should have never let you go to Lawrence.  You weren’t ready for college.”

I stopped, stunned.  “What did you say, Mom?”

“We watched the video from Colorado.  You were clearly miserable and not ready to go off to college. You should have stayed home and gone to MCC.”

Ah, Colorado.  The family vacation we took the summer after I graduated high school.  Since my school started much later than everyone else, my parents planned the trip in August….when all my friends were leaving for school.  Cue moody, miserable teenager.

This conversation, though, was many years later, when I was in my early 30s, and my parents were going through old photos and videos, one piece of the eventual sale of my childhood home.  It hurt to hear her discount all the hard work, all the scrimping and saving, all the effort we had taken as a family for me to get into—and afford—a rigorous, top-tier school.    

Today is May 1st, decision day, and that memory always creeps in my brain as I think about my students and their college choices.  Spring has bloomed with college decisions and Mother’s Day….and blue children all over Lake County to raise awareness of child abuse. 

 

A Blue Kid of Lake County to promote Child Abuse Awareness

It all reminds me of my rocky, difficult relationship with my mother.

“Look at those girls,” my mom is saying to junior high me.  “Do you see them laughing at you?”

“No, where?”  I glanced around and saw two girls I didn’t recognize, whispering and giggling.

Maybe they were laughing at me, but they didn’t cast an impression on me.  I was a bit of a contrarian as a junior high kid, the type of kid who had a clear sense of who she was and where she was going.  I had zero interest in hair and makeup and clothes and celebrities, but loved science and math and Anne MacCaffrey and old movies and The Weather Channel.  I was looking forward to leaving the insular, small universe of my elementary/junior high (yes, one building for K-8) for the larger suburban high school, where there was a chance there were more kids like me, or even that buzzer thing they did on Head of the Class.  (There was.  We won conference my senior year, and I was named to the all-conference team.  I hope that plaque is still hanging in the hallway.)

My mother, however, noticed every single glance, every single giggle, every single whisper, and made sure that I was given the feedback.

The actual teasing and whispers and drama and gossip wasn’t so bad; we were all uncomfortable and struggling.  It was having to come home and have to rehash it in detail that had me terrified every day.  Most of my memories of eighth grade were standing at the foot of my parents’ bed, going through my day with my mom, who was analyzing everything I did and said, trying to suggest how I could have handled it better.  Hours spent staring at the bed, the wallpaper, trying to figure out how to make the conversation stop.

But the conversation never really stopped.  Her voice whispers through me at every social gathering, noticing every look or stare or awkward moment, her post-mortems in my head on the way home.  I look in the mirror, tired, never able to escape the lecture. 

As children, we believe our parents are right.  They are acting in our best interests, and their unconditional love means they would never do harm.  They love us so much they would kill for us, right?  Just like we see in those PBS documentaries.

“Trying to get your ideas on paper is like pulling teeth.  What are you trying to say here?”  A mother in graduate school, helping her daughter get through World Literature in high school.  I swear, those Greek and Latin vocabulary lessons saved me so many times...

“What I wrote down.”

“Erin, it doesn’t make any sense.  Here, you should rewrite it this way.”

Despite working on her masters’ degree in social work, my mother was always willing to help me.  While science and math came easily to me, writing did not.  I loved to read, but I saw a very different world in the literature we were reading—and my need to put the words perfectly on paper impeded my ability to communicate those thoughts.

As we’ve learned this year, parents aren’t always the best person to teach their children, and this was a textbook example.  She didn’t have the training to help me in a way that would encourage me, and as someone where every other aspect of school came easily, the discouragement factor was high.  Every session eroded my confidence in my writing skills, to the point where I didn’t think I could complete an assignment without her help.

It took four tough, grueling, frustrating years at Lawrence before I believed I was an adequate writer.  Four years of writing and editing and essay tests and term papers.  I had chosen a school that required formal, written lab reports and math assignments.

Four years of doing The Grind.

While college isn’t this happy, idyllic memory, I am so grateful for the growth and strength it gave me.  A lot of who I am today came from those difficult times.  Perhaps that’s why my mother’s comments about those four years—and wishing she had kept me home—stung so much, even ten years after graduation. 

*****

“We’d go to teacher conferences, and they kept asking me, ‘why is she so afraid of you?’ I didn’t know what to say, because that’s not how you behave at home.”

Her tone was part frustration, part exasperation, and part accusatory.  My father was on the school board, while my mother was active in the PTA.  In a small school where many of my teachers were also parents, they knew my family, my home, and there were no red flags of abuse.  It didn’t make sense.

To her.  Here I was, in my thirties, and it was the first inkling that maybe her way of parenting wasn’t healthy or right for me.  When I started therapy and unpacking my childhood, I learned that her behavior had crossed the line towards abuse.

What we truly don’t understand until we become adults is that our parents are the products of their own childhoods, their own brokenness from their own parents.  Many abusers were actually victims of abuse, never having dealt with their own trauma, and children are very good at testing their parent’s patience.  Parents who don’t have the practice and skills to handle such difficult situations…make mistakes. 

I will never say that I was an easy child.  The double-whammy of high IQ and undiagnosed mental illness is tough for even the best of parents.  My mother was a fixer, needing to correct everything around her, while I was this mess of a brain that didn’t stop and couldn’t calm.  It was a perfect storm of conflict, the child who didn’t have the language to express the fireworks in her brain and the mother whose brain was so full of her own issues she didn’t have the skills to meet me at my level. 

Instead, she tore me down verbally to gain the upper hand.  As long as she held my self-esteem, I was controllable.  Easy to parent.

We see child abuse as fists and anger, torture and neglect, but we don’t think about the words.  Words of misunderstanding and frustration, words that break confidence and trust.  It’s words that make a daughter who worked on three patents in nanocomposite technology, who got a job with the US House of Representatives, who medaled at a national figure skating championships, who finished nine marathons—believe she is the black sheep of the family, too much a contrarian, a monster, a dictator to be included.

Words matter.  Understanding matters.  Parenting is a hard job, one that, knowing what I know now, is completely beyond my abilities.  Good thing I never did settle down and have children.  The cycle is broken.  Healing is happening, and maybe some day I’ll be able to look at my mother and not feel her disappointment in me.

Not hear her words in my head.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Back in the Saddle

I’m back in the saddle again.

A short warm up run

To start the work week.


I huff and I plod along,

Enjoying the green buds and the birds’ chirp,

The start of spring.


I think about how I felt in NYC,

A lean, mean marathon machine.

That was a long time ago.


I may be out of shape, 

But my mind is stronger than my body.

Stronger than when I started this quest.

I’ve grown.




Sunday, March 21, 2021

My Thank You Letter to my Body

 After reading Lose Weight with Ang’s beautiful thank you note to her body, I felt compelled to write one of my own.  It has been a rough year, and my body has taken a back seat to my mind, a theme that needs to change as my 50th birthday looms in the near future.  I hope you appreciate, and I hope you are inspired to write a thank you note to your body!

Enjoy!

PR Performance! October, 2018


Dear body,

Thank you for being so strong and healthy. 

It didn’t start that way.  The danger of the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck made my birth scary for a first-time mother and landed me in the high-risk nursery for the first week of my life.  That week was the last time I spent the night in the hospital, thanks to your strength and health.

I would need that strength and health of body, because my mind was often too broken to properly take care of you.  A mind that refused to eat at an age when food was needed to grow.  A mind driven to submit to hour after hour of training in order to excel in running and figure skating, despite having no natural talent or gifts.  A mind that insists on endless showers and hand washings.  A mind needing to be beaten into submission as the outside world triggered it into chaos.

You have been my rock, my pillar.  No matter what damage I inflicted upon you, you kept getting up, kept living, kept surviving.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year and a half since you put on a show, negative splitting the last five miles of the New York Marathon and finishing under five hours.  I was a lean, mean, running machine, and the future loomed bright.  There were so many things I could do for you to make you even stronger, even faster, even more beautiful.

But my mind was still healing from another breakdown, one that ended my job and my relationship that year.  Marathon training had to be put on hold as I struggled to stay ahead of the bills.

Again, you rose to the occasion, allowing me to take on several physically intensive jobs that required being in top shape.  As a global pandemic of an unknown virus shut down the world, your immune system kept me from succumbing to disease, allowing me to shuffle and adapt as furloughs loomed.

It was a glance in the mirror on a warm July afternoon that I noticed the damage I had inflicted upon you.  My face, always a source of pride, looked crooked.  My angled jaw was now rounded and chubby.  I looked at my body, the lithe sinew that traveled across the five boroughs of New York City, atrophied into a fluffy marshmallow.

My mind broke again, fearing everything from a possible stroke to a horrible disease.  It was in this fear that I realized how much I had taken your strength and health for granted, how many times I had skipped the basic checkups and maintenance, the things I had done to hurt you instead of care for you.  Inside of a world that could not return to normal and hours of isolation, my mind went into a tailspin, sliding down a spiral of self-pity and self-abuse instead of giving you the love and caring you deserved.

By the time I finally made it to the dentist and the doctor, I learned that once again, you had risen to the occasion.  No cavities, no major health issues, and no serious illnesses.  You gave me the gift of being able to heal my mental illnesses without having to battle physical ones as well.  I cannot thank you enough for that.

It is why I end this letter with a promise.  I promise to care for you, to treat you with love, to do everything in my power to nourish the strength and health you have given me all these years so that we can have many, many more years to come.

With Love,

Erin

 

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Monster

 Something doesn’t feel right.

One little thing,

Shoved dramatically out of place,

One micron.

 

I can’t get it out of my mind,

The imperfection, the missing piece.

The stress builds in me,

As I cannot seem to correct the flaw.

 

My mind starts accelerating,

Faster than a Porsche.

Anxiety to panic,

Anger to rage.

 

I’ve become a demon,

A troll,

A fire breathing dragon,

A combination of all three.

 

The rage blinds my mind.

Maim! Hurt! Kill! Destroy!

The circuits have overloaded,

The fuses, blown.

 

Punishment is metered out,

To excise my internal pain.

For what I did wrong,

To cause the entire mess.

 

Then as fast as a Thanos snap,

The monster vanishes.

My mind is eerily quiet,

And full of dust.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Time Loop

Scrub, scrub, scrub, 
Never good enough
I’m stuck in a time loop
Of endless handwashing

Touch the faucet 

Scrub, scrub, scrub again


Touch the soap dish

Scrub, scrub, scrub again


Water too hot

Go to the other bathroom 

Scrub, scrub, scrub again


Take three steps from the sink

Have to turn around and 

Scrub, scrub, scrub again


Forget where I was going

What I was doing

Repeat from the beginning

Scrub, scrub, scrub all over


Wash all the dirt off my hands

And my mind

Clear my brain to focus

On the task ahead


I can’t stop until I’m ready

I’m perfect.


Or the idea of having unclean hands 

Slithers around my head

A poisonous snake.


While I’m washing and clearing my mind,

Time ticks on

Aggressively,

Relentlessly.

I have nothing to show for my hard work

But clean hands.